Finally, one woman ended the polite gawking and interrupted the conversation Okafor was having with Jordan McRae, the 76ers summer league teammate seated next to him.
“Okay,” she said, “which one of y’all am I going to have to know next season?”
McRae pointed his thumb toward Okafor. Okafor pointed at McRae and responded, “Probably him.”
The inquisitive woman tilted her head and glared harder at Okafor, curling her lips as if she had some doubt. Then they all laughed. She didn’t need to know that Okafor was the top-ranked player for his entire high school career, or that he had led Duke to a national championship as a freshman just three months earlier, or that he was recently drafted third overall to help resuscitate a franchise that has been spiraling toward irrelevance in recent years.
Okafor’s quiet but confident demeanor suggested that he was somebody important. As the woman headed back to her seat, Okafor cracked a smile.
The 76ers are certainly hopeful that Okafor will develop into a cornerstone for a rebuilding effort that is slow to take shape. Using a be-bad-and-pray-for-some-luck strategy, Philadelphia General Manager Sam Hinkie has inspired plenty of doubt around the league and nearly imposed lottery reform.
Over the past two years, the 76ers have traded serviceable NBA players for draft picks and used lottery picks on injured players while stashing another in Europe. As a result, they have won 39 games the past two seasons. Okafor won 35 games in his lone season at Duke but isn’t intimidated by the challenge ahead in the NBA, with an organization still seeking an identity.
“I am ready,” Okafor said. “I was the No. 1 player out of high school, so I always had a lot of attention and then I went to Duke University, one of the bigger schools in the country, won a national championship. So I’m used to it. I think I’ll handle it pretty fine.”
Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker, a Chicago native, Duke alumnus and one of Okafor’s best friends, has been advising the talented big man with the throwback low-post moves on what to expect in the NBA. Like Okafor, Parker has dealt with the immense scrutiny of being a prodigy, played for Coach Mike Krzyzewski, and was taken with a top-three pick to join an organization that won fewer than 20 games the previous year.
“It will help the adjustment period,” Parker said of Okafor’s experience of being in the spotlight, “but it’s on a different scale. He has a lot to learn, because he’s been given a pedestal and a lot of responsibility but it’s nothing he can’t handle. He’s going to be in the NBA a long time. So he has to. He doesn’t have a choice.”
Okafor won’t have much help as he begins his NBA journey. Nerlens Noel, a wiry first-team all-rookie power forward, is expected to serve as a defensive complement to Okafor, but the 76ers currently only have four other players on the roster selected in the first round. And, Joel Embiid, the third pick of the 2014 draft, won’t make his NBA debut for at least another season after reportedly re-breaking the same right foot that caused the 7-foot center to miss all of last season. Okafor doesn’t believe his responsibilities to the organization will change with Embiid sidelined.
“My role is to dominate,” Okafor said. “I’m one of the centerpieces of the team, so my role is the same.”
Embiid’s injury, combined with the Los Angeles Lakers selecting point guard D’Angelo Russell ahead of Okafor, forced Hinkie to take the best player on the board, regardless of position. After initially wondering if he was drafted to be traded, Okafor was assured the 76ers want to build around him.
Philadelphia is in desperate need of a promising prospect to promote to an apathetic fan base and skeptical outsiders. Minnesota Timberwolves rookie guard Tyus Jones, Okafor’s close friend and former Duke teammate, believes they have found one. Okafor showed his dedication right away, showing up for 6:30 a.m. workouts at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, where the 76ers practice, shortly after the draft.
“He’s a winner,” Jones said of Okafor. “He’s someone who is going to work his tail off in the gym. And try to learn at the same time. Him being a competitor, he hates to lose, so he’ll bring a winning culture to that franchise and he’s going to help them out a lot.”
A nimble, 270-pound big man who takes up considerable space and has hands so massive he can hold 13 tennis balls at one time, Okafor enjoys operating close to the basket at a time when the game encourages players with size to have versatility and range. Okafor grew up admiring Tim Duncan and his father, Chucky, made him study film of Hakeem Olajuwon. So, he won’t let modern trends diminish the merits of generating easy buckets inside.
“People get a little excited because of what Steph Curry and those guys did was great and it worked. Their formula was fantastic. For as long as I can remember, big men have been dominant and the result has been championships,” Okafor said during his introductory news conference in Philadelphia last month. “I like to play in the post, that’s where I’m most comfortable. That’s where I’ve always been. I’ve never wavered off to shoot jump shots and things like that. I’ve always known that my bread and butter is in the post.”
Okafor scored 18 or more points in three of his five summer league games, commanding double teams and relentlessly fighting his way inside for layups. Players with length, such as New York rookie Kristaps Porzingis, gave him trouble since Okafor doesn’t get very high off the ground on his shot attempts. Okafor had his shot blocked several times, struggled with his free throws and felt rushed by the 24-second shot clock, which forced him to make quicker decisions. But the 76ers will give Okafor the platform to play through his struggles and enough touches to possibly become the franchise’s third rookie of the year, along with Allen Iverson (1996-97) and Michael Carter-Williams (2013-14).
“I don’t try to do too much. I certainly set high expectations for myself. If that’s pressure, then so be it,” Okafor said. “It’s a long progression I’m going to have to make. I’m only 19, so I have a lot of time. I’m just trusting the process. I don’t know if I’m going to make big progress or small progress, but any progress I can make, I’ll take it.”
The quicker Okafor improves, the sooner he will be more recognizable to casual fans. Okafor couldn’t avoid numerous autograph requests as he maneuvered through the Thomas and Mack Center and the Cox Pavilion at Las Vegas summer league. But he made it through his flight relatively unscathed. He knows that could eventually change.
“It doesn’t really feel like I’m in the NBA yet,” Okafor said. “It’s still a surreal feeling, because I’ve wanted to be here my entire life. It definitely feels a little different. Trying to take it all in, but it is a lot.”